CPL Skills Test – 6 Useful Things You Need To Know

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With just a few hours left of my commercial pilot licence course, one of the lowest points I have is struggling to control the speed and altitude or heading of the Piper Saratoga II TC (PA-32R-301). This is basic flying which should be second nature for a private pilot, yet here I am struggling to make it work, and I am supposed to be coming to the end of my commercial pilot licence course!

COMMERCIAL PILOT LICENCE (CPL) SKILLS TEST: HOW to PASS

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COMMERCIAL PILOT LICENCE (CPL) SKILLS TEST: HOW to PASS

What is going on? I feel like I’m in deep s**t and so far behind the aircraft! I had just stepped up from flying a docile forgiving much slower 140 horsepower PA28 into this six-cylinder 300 horsepower turbo beast.

Jumping into the Saratoga felt like I had gone from driving a lawnmower to jumping into Lewis Hamiltons Mercedes Formula 1 car in the wet!

The climb performance of the Saratoga made the DA42 seem underpowered and slow. I get into the cruise, bring the power back to 55%, and struggle to stay below 160kts.

This thing is an absolute rocket – and I’m struggling to keep up with it! In this blog post, I’ll share what happened in my CPL skills test.

1. EASA CPL requirements

To start your CPL course, you need to have achieved the following:

  • 150hours total time (you need 200hours Total time by your test)
  • 300NM (540KM) CPL qualifying cross country with landings at two different aerodromes (different from departure)
  • Completed theoretical knowledge examinations (CPL or ATPL theory exams)

2. Prerequisite for your EASA CPL Skills test:

On my mock CPL skills test, my paperwork was a mess. Get all your paperwork organised and make sure you meet these requirements. Failure to do so will mean that you could lose your test fee if the examiner arrives and finds a gap. It is not good enough to assume the ‘flying school’ will have organised everything. It is your CPL skills test fee on the line.

Prior to your CPL skills test, you must have:

  • Completed your CPL course approved training in line with the CAA CPL syllabus (Part-FCL). Make sure your student records are up to date and the hours line up
  • Completed ATPL theoretical knowledge examinations (or CPL)
  • Be recommended for the test by your head of training or approved deputy and make sure you have your course completion certificate complete.
  • If you have had already attempted the CPL skills test, then you will need to produce the previous test results (SRG 2130)
  • If you have done any of your CPL course in a synthetic training device, then make sure that the CAA has approved the device.
  • Valid EASA Class 1 medical. If your medical is out of date, you can still do your test, but the CPL licence will not be issued until you have a valid medical.
  • Make sure you have your flight radio telephony operators licence.

An excellent document to read before your CPL skills test in the UK is the CAA Standards Document 3, which has guidance notes for applicants taking the CPL Skills Test (Aeroplanes).

One of the books that also really helped me was A GUIDE TO THE EASA CPL FLIGHT TEST – JONATHAN SHOOTER.

3. Commercial Pilot Licence skills test aircraft

I did my CPL skills test in the beast that is the PA32R – Saratoga II TC. Your CPL skills test needs to be completed on a complex aircraft with a variable pitch prop. If your flying school leases the aircraft for your test, you need to ensure that the insurance is available and in date to cover the test. 

Most CPL courses only complete the last 5 hours of the course in the complex aircraft. For this reason, you may be unfamiliar with the aircraft, so take the time to read the Pilot Operating Handbook beforehand.

Technically, the examiner could ask you anything from the POH so make sure you know all the headline figures – fuel consumption, speeds, limitations, where to find the ELT etc.

Make sure you understand how to complete the techlog i.e. how many hours left until the next service when was the last one etc. Whist on the aircraft subject, make sure you have a clean approved checklist for yourself and a copy for the examiner. 

4. Booking your CPL skills test and getting allocated an examiner

Once ready for the CPL skills test, my flying school booked my test, and I was then allocated an examiner and test date.

Most CPL courses in the UK exclude the CAA skill test exam fee – which is £826 at the time of writing. The aircraft hire for the test is not normally included in your CPL course either, so you should budget around £2000 to complete your CPL skills test and licence application.

Are you hour building? Click here for the FREE Structured Hour Building Web App to help you get the most out of hour building and prepare for your CPL course!

5. Getting ready for your CPL skills test day!

The most critical aspect of getting ready for your CPL skill test (outside of paperwork administration) is to be well-rested.

I would say the CPL skills test was probably the hardest test that I had to complete during my pilot training. It is completely achievable though – you just need to be on the ball when the time comes.

I did my CPL skills test at Blackpool airport and although my test was scheduled for 2 pm the following day, briefing around 1 hour before – I got a hotel room at the airport and stayed over the night before.

It meant I then had all morning to get organised with all the paperwork, get the aircraft fueled etc. without stressing.

The CPL skill test sections

  1. Departure
  2. Airwork
  3. En-route procedures
  4. Approach and landing
  5. Abnormal and emergency procedures
  6. Simulated asymmetric flight (if doing your test on a twin)

I mentioned previously that one way to save money on your pilot training is to complete your CPL on a single-engine piston aircraft rather than a twin. I did my CPL on a single, so section 6 (simulated asymmetric flight) was not applicable.

6. The CPL Skills test day

CPL Skills test briefing

Before the examiner arrived, I had laid out all the paperwork (student records, licence, aircraft documents etc.) in the office that the examiner would use. It is a good idea to have a space allocated for the examiner and a separate room that you can use to plan the flight.

You can get yourself off to a good start by being organised and having everything in order. First impressions count!

Items to be checked by the examiner before your CPL skills test

  • Your licence
  • EASA Class 1 medical
  • ID
  • Course completion certificate/ Recommendation for the skills test
  • Aircraft documents and techlog – don’t forget to take the aircraft documents with you to the aircraft!!
  • Headset – make sure you have a spare in the aircraft.
  • Two copies of your approved checklist
  • Your map and airfield plates
  • proof of payment

Items to have in the aircraft for your CPL skills test

  • spare headset
  • aircraft documents
  • goggles/ hood for limited panel

The examiner then went through how the test would be conducted. You are basically responsible for everything unless the examiner says otherwise! The examiner then gave me the route to plan along with his weight for the mass and balance.

Planning the flight

I planned the flight as I had been taught during my ATPL theory and my CPL course. You can use electronic tools to plan your flight, but be aware, weather, NOTAMs, charts etc have to be from official sources. 

Once I had my plog and map filled out, I then did my mass and balance and performance calculations, including applying the necessary factors. Don’t forget to plan your alternate too. 

The weather was beautiful for me – CAVOK with light winds. If the weather is not great, the decision rests with you to make the go/ no-go call. You are being assessed on your ability to conduct public transport flight in VFR, so be sensible and make safe, conservative decisions. 

We reconvene to finish briefing

We then reconvened after I had planned the flight.

The brief was that I would be taking a customer to our destination (Sedbrough) to take some photographs! I was then reminded of my responsibilities i.e. I’m in charge and responsible unless the examiner says otherwise.

I gave the examiner a weather briefing and highlighted the NOTAMs that could affect us. He checked my plan, including alternates. He then spoke about how the emergencies would be conducted.

Because I had completed my mass and balance using a spreadsheet I had created using the aircraft POH, the examiner asked a few questions to verify that I understood the mechanics behind the spreadsheet. He then asked the speeds that I would fly: rotation, climb, best climb, cruise, best glide etc. Nothing to catch you out – just make sure you know your stuff.

Time to go flying!

With the briefing complete, I booked out and headed to the aircraft. Depending on your test and aircraft, it may not be possible to refuel before you brief as you don’t want to be in a situation where your mass and balance are out of limits or have a performance issue because there is too much on the aircraft fuel.

CPL skills test

Departure

I completed the walk around, and it was time to get in and make a start. I was definitely nervous but was trying to do my best to calm down. Once I got into the pre-start checklist, I settled down and just went through what I had done many times before.

COMMERCIAL PILOT LICENCE (CPL) SKILLS TEST: HOW to PASS

COMMERCIAL PILOT LICENCE (CPL) SKILLS TEST: HOW to PASS

This is why it is so essential to build good habits during hour building. If you have good structured hour building, your good habits will help you during CPL, and you will have fewer CPL course issues. Once the test starts, be ready for anything – including a simulated engine fire on startup!

The examiner is a passenger on public transport flight, so before you start, give them a safety briefing. I was taught to build my briefing around the acronym.

SAFE: Seatbelts, Aircraft exists, Fire Extinguisher, ELT…

The departure is to be conducted as safely and as expeditiously as possible. This is a public transport flight, so no hanging around!

HOW to HOUR BUILD to PASS CPL PILOT TRAINING!!

HOW to HOUR BUILD to PASS CPL PILOT TRAINING!!

En-route

On my initial heading at our cruise level with the departure complete, I did my cruise checks and my first set of time checks and gave the examiner an updated ETA. My routing took us over a restricted area (Morcome power station), so I did a brief dogleg to avoid it.

Use whatever system you have been taught and are comfortable with for track deviations en-route.

You will need to let the examiner know of any heading changes otherwise they will think you are drifting! Dogleg complete to avoid the danger area, we were approaching the half waypoint. I updated the examiner with our revised ETA and my final heading. 

Be really careful about maintaining VFR all the way. We had some cloud coming up to the halfway point so I let the examiner know I would need to descend and why. Quick verification that we were still above MSA, I started the descent. 

About 3/4 of the way towards our first destination, the examiner asked me to divert to a tiny village called Bootle. Time, Turn, Talk, Task, pick a heading, update ETA, find the halfway point etc, I updated the examiner. I was quite fortunate as I had done most of my hour building from Blackpool so knew the area well.

Our diversion leg had the midpoint over the middle of lake Windemere! From a distance, I could see the high ground (Black Combe) in the Furness peninsula, and Bootle was on the other side of Black Combe.

At the halfway point, I updated the ETA and made my final heading correction and pointed out to the examiner the landmarks and where Bootle was. 

It is so important you are comfortable with basic navigation, and a lot of your hour building will shape this. During hour building, I always used to write a plog and draw my map. Although I had sky demon, my primary navigation was completed in the old school way!

On the diversion leg, you can use the navigation aids to verify your position. I fixed our position using the WAL VOR. Don’t forget: Select, Identify, Display when using navaids.

Don’t forget to keep a good lookout at all times!

Also, don’t forget your diversion ruler!

See it on Amazon

About 3/4 of the way to Bootle, the examiner was satisfied with my progress, so we moved on to the next section.

Air Work during the CPL skills test

It was then straight into simulated IMC, and limited panel. Take your time, particularly when figuring out which way to turn and timings. I was then asked to fix my position on the chart. Same again – take your time and do not rush. It is easy to make a mistake.

With the IMC section complete, I then took back the responsibility of the lookout and everything else!

The next stage was the various other visual manoeuvres: straight and level at different speeds, climbing and turning at different speeds etc. We then did the recovery from unusual attitudes, spiral dive etc. It was then on to the stalls.

A word of caution on the stalls, during the clean stall – the examiner will not always say when to recover from the clean stall. You can clarify this during your briefing

For the other non clean stalls, it is for you to recover at the first sign of the stall.

Abnormal and emergency procedures

The next stage was the emergency procedures. We had started to drift towards a parachute drop zone, so I advised the examiner of this, and we flew towards a more open area. Even when the examiner is in control if you see anything you do not like, speak up.

You are being assessed on your airmanship throughout.

My first emergency was an engine fire. Thankfully after completing the fire actions, I checked with the examiner if the fire had gone out and he said yes! This meant I had a bit more time for the practised forced landing.

I found a field, did a good circuit, turned final and elected to do a gear down landing (make sure you select your gear and have made your mayday call before killing the master switch). With the commital checks complete and the examiner satisfied I would get into the field, he called go around.

I then had some other minor emergencies that I worked through using the checklist. You are allowed to complete items from memory once in the air, but for unusual emergencies (that are not time-critical), feel free to take your time, get the aircraft settled and then work through the checklist.

One of the feedback items I received in the debrief was that I did not use the autopilot during the non-critical emergency. The autopilot would have reduced my workload.

Keep your fuel plog going and the tanks balanced all the way through.

Approach and Landing

By this point, I started to get tired after concentrating solidly for nearly two hours. Keep going and work hard. You are nearly done, but don’t relax your guard as a level bust or a missed radio call can still have you fail your test, leaving you having to pay another CAA CPL skills test fee.

The circuit was busy coming back into Blackpool, which made it a pain, as the Saratoga wanted to fly at a minimum 120kts clean! This made it hard work trying to keep spacing with the 70kt Cessnas! Keep a good lookout and do your best with the spacing with other aircraft.

ATC will usually accommodate more than usual on an exam callsign, but I still had two go-arounds due to traffic! In one case, I got to 300 ft, had not received a landing clearance as the aircraft ahead was slow vacating.

CPL is about safe, conservative decisions, so this is not the day you want to get a landing clearance at 50″ and land! Just go around! Eventually, we completed the circuits and the touch and go’s with the last manoeuver being the rejected takeoff.

I had a good flight so far, and no big screw-ups so I was feeling good. The danger is a slip up due to fatigue/ concentration at this stage.

Are you hour building? Click here for the FREE Structured Hour Building Web App to help you get the most out of hour building and prepare for your CPL course!

Don’t stop concentrating during the CPL skills test

The CPL skills test is demanding, and the examiners know that even the best pilots will have a slip-up. If you do, don’t worry – make a prompt correction and move on. A mistake does not necessarily mean the test has been failed.

The last manoeuvre to complete was a rejected takeoff. It was then time to taxi in. Concentrate, concentrate, concentrate, as you can still fail at this stage, e.g. miss hearing or not following a taxi instruction, missing a radio call etc. Also, do not do your after landing checks until you have completely vacated the runway.

Silence and a bit of relief as we taxi in. I have done everything I can. Back to the apron, I set the parking brake and shut down. A brief pause and the examiner looks at me a says congratulations- you have passed your CAA CPL licence skills test! Well done.

The amazing feeling it was to hear those words. The amount of work involved to get to that stage over the years!

I was exhausted. My shirt was drenched in sweat! The examiner left me to finish closing down and asked for about 15mins or so before we started de-briefing. I was so tired: I could barely read the shutdown checklist and had to do it twice to make sure I had not missed anything.

Debrief

You never escape untouched during a CPL debrief. The examiner had some observations – my map lines had covered some important detail, VFR rules above 150kts > The Saratoga II is ridiculously fast! And a few other minor points. The examiner was happy, though. 

We then spent the next 30mins or so completing all the paperwork (CAA Skills test form etc) and then it was time to head home for a well-earnt dinner as a newly qualified commercial pilot licence holder (once it arrived in the post)!

If you wish to learn more about Pilot Training for CPL and beyond, check out my best-selling Pilot Training Guide on Amazon.

Listen to the Pilot Training Guide FREE with Audible here

See it on Amazon

Do you have questions on the CPL skills test? Please leave me a comment in the section below. I would love to hear from you.

PA28 CPL Skills Test

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